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Lessons learned from one of The Best

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to make our list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon for 12 years — the most of any company, ever — and at the same time twice make Fortune magazine’s national list of best companies? Oh, and along the way, grow your business from $140 million in assets to more than $8 billion?

{safe_alt_text} ROBIN DOUSSARD

To hear Ray Davis tell it, it’s simple.

“It starts with people,” says the president and CEO of Umpqua Bank. “I tell the people who work for me, ‘I know my title is CEO, but that’s not my real title. I’m Head of Support.’”

That’s been Davis’ philosophy since joining Umpqua Bank in 1994, and he spells it out in his book, Leading for Growth: How Umpqua Bank Got Cool and Created a Culture of Greatness, published last year. It details how Davis grew a small Roseburg-based bank from six to 147 locations throughout California, Washington and Oregon. Part of the strategy is that titles should help people see through to their true mission. Like calling the receptionist the Director of Smiles. Like a CEO called Head of Support.

Even after 12 times on the 100 Best List, Davis isn’t complacent.  “It’s amazing we make these lists,” he muses, because Umpqua has along its growth path had to absorb a lot of different work cultures and a lot of people. And Davis doesn’t mince words on this: A strong culture is necessary for a strong company.  

Focusing on his people is key for Davis, who talks to all 1,800 of them in some form about every other month because he believes the greatest fear people have “is the fear of the unknown, the bump in the night.” Communication is his answer.  

A successful company starts with people, but Davis says it’s propelled by discipline. “Discipline builds credibility; it takes away the fear of the unknown. You have to have discipline to stay the course.”

Staying the course in the banking industry isn’t easy right now, with the collapse of the housing market and the subprime meltdown buffeting the financial world. Umpqua is no exception, with its stock taking a bruising. But Davis understands cycles and sees the current rough spell as “the ultimate climate for leading for growth. In difficult times you really find out the caliber of people in the organization.”

In his introduction to Leading for Growth, Davis says his book is for companies “tired of treading water.”

You could say the same about why companies enter the 100 Best: They put themselves up for rigorous (and anonymous) scrutiny by their employees, who are asked to rate such items as benefits, work environment, trust, learning opportunities and management. Then the company has to submit its benefit plan. All of that is reviewed by our independent research partners to calculate how a company is doing, and then it is compared against the more than 300 other companies that have entered to come up with the ranking. These companies do it because they want to get better. They don’t want to just tread water.

And if they make the 100 Best List, it really matters. Even if it’s the 12th time.


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